- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

Most children in D.C. public schools continue to be among the worst readers in the nation, scoring even lower than they did a year ago, according to a report released yesterday.

Only 11 percent of D.C. fourth-graders and just 10 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading — meaning that they are literate enough to “read to learn” and deal with their most challenging schoolwork in further grades, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report, also called “The Nation’s Report Card.”

The latest NAEP reading scores for America’s schoolchildren showed no overall national improvement over last year.

The figures show that 30 percent of the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders performed “at or above the proficient level” in reading in 2003, the same level as last year for fourth-graders and a one-point drop for eighth-graders. In mathematics, the nation’s fourth-graders on average showed a nine-point jump in “at or above the proficient level” and eighth-graders a two-point rise.

Even Virginia fourth- and eighth-graders, whose reading ability has bested the national average for many decades, slipped a few points on the latest round of NAEP tests.

Maryland fourth-graders broke away with a two-point increase in their average reading score and an 11-point increase in mathematics marks that exceeded the national 10-point upswing in math improvement, lauded yesterday by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige as “stellar.”

“The fact that gains in 2002 were sustained, that’s good,” said Charles E. Smith, NAEP’s executive director.

Although 70 percent of white fourth-graders in D.C. schools are “at or above proficient” in reading, just 7 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics tested proficient in fourth grade, according to the NAEP report.

Just 8 percent of black D.C. eighth-graders and 11 percent of Hispanics can read proficiently as they get ready to enter high school.

More than a third of black D.C. fourth-graders and a fourth of Hispanics are “below basic” in reading, and almost the same proportion are still below basic in eighth grade.

By contrast, Virginia and Maryland students in both grades exceeded the nation’s average reading scores, and about a third of students in both states were rated “at or above proficient” in literacy.

School experts say the NAEP reading results overall point to poor or inadequate early childhood reading instruction before enactment of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

“The major problem in raising reading achievement is … children are too often not receiving a sufficient amount of reading instruction, and the instruction that is provided often fails to address those aspects of learning to read that research indicates are essential,” said Timothy Shanahan, a reading education professor at the University of Illinois.

At a press conference, Mr. Paige said the No Child Left Behind Act’s tougher reading and mathematics testing provisions and a $6 billion Reading First federal grant program already are beginning to show results. The department doled out roughly $2 billion in these grants in the past two years.

“I’m very concerned about the reading results overall,” Mr. Paige said after department officials reported that scores measuring reading achievement have remained “flat” since 1992.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Mr. Paige said. “We’ve recognized there’s no silver bullet. … Improved instruction can have dramatic results.”

The U.S. Education Department has approved Reading First plans for all 50 states and the District, which commit school systems to phonics instruction and other scientifically based methods to teach reading, the secretary said.

In the District, average math scores of fourth-graders increased 11 points, but just 4 percent of black students and 7 percent of Hispanics were “at or above proficient” and 67 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Hispanics were “below basic.”

But among white D.C. fourth-graders, just 3 percent were “below basic,” while 71 percent were “at or above proficient” in math.

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